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SC’s Trayvon Martin and the Civil War

Posted: July 19, 2013 11:00 a.m.
Updated: July 22, 2013 5:00 a.m.

As this was written, no one knew how the jury would decide the Trayvon Martin case. And no matter what the jury decided, the verdict will surely arouse strong emotions and debates about race, violence and American society.

In 1856, a South Carolinian sparked our own “Trayvon Martin case” that inflamed passions, ramped up already overheated rhetoric and some say polarized society such that the Civil War became inevitable.

Now, the Trayvon Martin case is unlikely to spark another Civil War, but the two incidents are both instructive about how single events can quickly become personalized and explode into a national cause that leads to unforeseen consequences.

First the two cases. Unless you have been living in a cave for the past few months, you probably already heard far more about the Martin case than you really want to know. It’s been a constant topic in the news for months and media pundits on all sides have had their say.

This is not the place to go into all the details, suffice to say most think “it’s all about race” as polls show that, overall, whites think that Martin was the aggressor and most African Americans think he was the victim.

The historic case of Preston Brooks and Thomas Sumner is more distant but no less dominant in the news of the day -- and it too was “all about race” -- and the issues of slavery. In 1856, the country was deeply divided over slavery and the questions of secession and a possible civil war was looming, but the war issue was still in the balance and some historians argue it could have gone either way.

In May of 1856, U.S. Senator Thomas Sumner of Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most vocal and virulent opponents of slavery, took the Senate floor and delivered a fiery speech attacking slavery in general and S.C.’s Senator Andrew Butler in specific. Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks of Edgefield, then proceeded to go to the Senate Chamber and savagely beat Sumner with a cane -- striking him more than 30 times and sending Sumner into unconsciousness such that he essentially did not return to the Senate for almost two years.

The incident instantly polarized the country. Brooks’ hometown newspaper The Edgefield Advertiser said “Hit him again,” which quickly became the rallying cry of Brooks’ supporters across the South. Sumner’s supporters used word like “barbaric and blood thirsty” and worse. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend of Sumner said the attack had “torn the mask off the faces of traitors, and at last the spirit of the North is aroused.”

So is Trayvon Martin a modern day Thomas Sumner and is George Zimmerman the new Preston Brooks? It’s not that simple; but it is instructive.

Both incidents show the power of the media to take one single event and transform it into a national obsession. The talking heads of the media take over and stories quickly become reduced to a few simple “facts” that re-enforce existing opinions and cast the incidents starkly as “Us vs. Them.”

In 1856, the unintended consequences of “The Caning” as it became known, were inflamed passions such that it help fuel the rise of a new anti-slavery political party -- the Republican Party. Ironically, the new party’s candidate for president in 1856 was John C. Fremont, who had grown up in South Carolina and was expelled from the College of Charleston.

So, is the Trayvon Martin case just history repeating itself in some way? Only time will tell what happens.

But, regardless of what the Martin trial jury decided -- let’s all step back, take a deep breath and think about things before we react. Let’s not let things get out of hand.

We all may have more at stake than first appears.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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